Situated some 25km southeast of downtown Vientiane on the Mekong River, Xieng Khuan or the “Buddha Park” is surely Laos’s quirkiest attraction – a tacky tourist trap to some travellers, one of the most interesting sights in Vientiane to others. This collection of massive ferro-concrete sculptures, dotted around a wide riverside meadow, was created under the direction of Luang Pou Bounleua Soulilat, a self-styled holy man who claimed to have been the disciple of a cave-dwelling Hindu hermit in Vietnam. Upon returning to Laos, Bounleua began the sculpture garden in the late 1950s as a means of spreading his philosophy of life and his ideas about the cosmos. After the revolution, Bounleua was forced to flee across the Mekong to Nong Khai, Thailand, where he established an even more elaborate version of his philosophy in concrete. Ironically, the Lao National Tourism Authority chose Bounleua’s sculptures as the symbol of their “Visit Laos Year” campaign, and posters depicting the exiled guru’s works can be seen in government offices throughout the country.
Besides the brontosaurian reclining Buddha that dominates the park, there are statues of every conceivable deity in the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon and even a handful of personalities from the old regime. Near the park’s entrance is a strange edifice that resembles a giant pumpkin with a dead tree sprouting from its crown. Entering the structure through the gaping maw of devouring time, you can explore representations of the “three planes of existence”: hell, earth and heaven. A spiral stairway leads to the roof of the building, which affords good views of the park and river.